Bologna: San Domenico

Church of San Domenico.

Together with Franciscus of Assisi, Dominicus Guzmán can be counted among the most important church reformers of the thirteenth century. He was born around the year 1170 in the kingdom of Castile, now part of Spain. At the end of 1216 Pope Honorius III (1216-1227) approved his new Order of the Dominicans or Preachers. The new order was a mendicant order, based on principles of soberness, spirituality, study and obviously preaching. The link between the Dominicans and the notorious Inquisition would not be established until well after Dominicus’ death.

Pope Honorius first granted the Dominicans the church of San Sisto Vecchio in Rome and then, in 1218, the church of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill. Towards the end of 1218 Dominicus left for Bologna, which at the time was already a large and prosperous city, famous for its university founded in 1088. There the Dominicans were first assigned the church of Santa Maria della Purificazione (also known as della Mascarella), which stood outside the city walls and still exists. The church quickly proved to be way too small, and already in 1219 the friars were allowed to move to the church of San Nicolò delle Vigne, where they immediately began enlarging the convent. Dominicus had enough energy left to personally preside over two general chapters before he passed away in his convent in Bologna on 6 August 1221, exhausted by labour and toil. The future saint was buried at the altar of the San Nicolò delle Vigne.

Side view of the San Domenico, with the Tomba di Rolandino de’ Passaggeri.

History of the church

The church of San Nicolò delle Vigne is currently called the church of San Domenico. Dominicus himself would probably no longer have recognised his old church. Over the course of many centuries the building was altered and expanded beyond recognition. The present church – a minor basilica since 1884 – is a curious mixture of styles, a core building with many added chapels that is intriguing rather than truly beautiful. The Romanesque façade (which is medieval, but also modern) is for instance adjoined by the Cappella Ghisilardi from the sixteenth century, a chapel that is almost as wide as the façade itself. The huge Cappella di San Domenico and Cappella del Rosario are basically small churches in their own right. I highly encourage visitors to Bologna to climb the Asinelli tower, which is 97 metres high, to take a look at the church of San Domenico from above and study the way it was composed. Next to the basilica we find a cloister, which is a pleasant place to go for a stroll.

The San Domenico, seen from the Asinelli tower.

Cloister adjoining the church.

The original church of San Nicolò was enlarged between 1228 and 1240. Three years later, the project that involved enlargement of the convent (already mentioned above) was completed. Then, on 17 October 1251, the much larger church of San Domenico, dedicated to the Order’s founder, was consecrated by Pope Innocentius IV (1243-1254). In 1234 his predecessor Pope Gregorius IX (1227-1241) had made Dominicus a saint. The fact that he was now Saint Dominicus would have important consequences for his final resting place. More about that later. The San Domenico has a bell-tower that dates from 1313 and is 51 metres high. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries several chapels were added to the church, while between 1530 and 1534 the aforementioned Cappella Ghisilardi was constructed. It was designed by the famous architect Baldassare Peruzzi (1481-1536), but built by his colleague Jacopo Ranuzzi, who has remained rather obscure. Given the Romanesque façade, one might expect a Romanesque-style interior as well. However, the church had an interior that is entirely Baroque. It was remodelled between 1728 and 1732 by the architect Carlo Francesco Dotti (1670-1759).

Interior of the church.

In 1909-1910 Alfonso Rubbiani (1848-1913) restored the façade and more or less gave it back its medieval appearance. Among other things Rubbiani restored the rose window. The façade is rather plain and simple. Just like the rest of the exterior of the basilica, it mostly consists of brick. The mosaic that adorns the portal is in fact the only real external decoration (and note that it is a replica). Like the church of San Francesco elsewhere in Bologna, the San Domenico is surrounded by tombs of ‘glossators’, jurists from Bologna who annotated Roman law (they added ‘glosses’). The tombs here are those of Rolandino de’ Passaggeri from 1306 and Egidio Foscherari from 1289. Rolandino’s tomb is closest to the church, that of Egidio can be found a little bit further away.

Cappella di San Domenico

There cannot be any doubt that the Cappella di San Domenico is the single most important chapel in the entire church. It is the chapel where Saint Dominicus ultimately found his final resting place. Between 1597 and 1605 the original medieval chapel was remodelled in the style of the early Baroque by the architect Floriano Ambrosini (1557-1621) from Bologna. The chapel is very large and it is the only chapel in the church that has a dome. The paintings adorning the walls were made by the local masters Lionello Spada (1576-1622), Alessandro Tiarini (1577-1668) and Giovanni Andrea Donducci (1575-1655). They depict the miracles that Dominicus is said to have performed. The large apse painting was made by Guido Reni (1575-1642), one of the best-known Baroque painters from Bologna. Seven statues by Giovanni Todeschi have been placed in the niches in the back of the chapel. These represent the three theological and four cardinal virtues. Rather oddly, I have not been able to find any biographical information about the sculptor.

Cappella di San Domenico.

Arca di San Domenico.

The highlight in the chapel is of course the saint’s tomb, the Arca di San Domenico. Dominicus’ body was exhumed in 1233, twelve years after his death. It was placed in a coffin made of cypress wood, which was in its turn placed inside a marble sarcophagus. The sarcophagus was then moved to a separate chapel so that people could get closer to the founder of the Dominican Order. The number of visitors to the chapel no doubt increased after Dominicus was canonised in 1234. Although the saint had been the leader of a mendicant order, the urge to grant him a much more opulent tomb was apparently very strong. And so in 1264 the sculptor Nicola Pisano (ca. 1220-1284) and his assistants were commissioned to decorate the sarcophagus with six panels featuring scenes and miracles from the life of Dominicus. Among these assistants were presumably Arnolfo di Cambio (the first architect of the Duomo of Florence) and the Dominican lay brother Frà Guglielmo Agnelli (also known as Guglielmo da Pisa; see Pistoia: San Giovanni Fuorcivitas). In 1267 the sculpted reliefs were completed.

Nicola Pisano and his men were true masters of their art. The front panel of the sarcophagus first of all features the test of fire in the territory of the Cathars: the books of these French heretics are consumed by the flames, but those of Dominicus are floating above the fire. The other scene on the front represents the resurrection of Napoleone Orsini, a small boy that had died after falling from his horse. It was Dominicus who reportedly brought him back to life. On the side panel Dominicus is presented with a Bible by Saints Peter and Paul, while on the rear panel he meets Pope Innocentius III, Honorius’ predecessor. At first Innocentius appears not to be interested at all, but then he has a dream of Dominicus propping up a collapsing church (the scene resembles similar scenes involving Saint Franciscus of Assisi). The dream makes the Holy Father much more receptive to the church reformer’s ideas. It should, however, be noted that it was Honorius who approved the new order.

Front panel of the Arca di San Domenico.

The fifth scene is about Reginald of Orleans, a professor of canonical law at the Sorbonne in Paris who joined the Dominicans in Bologna. The panel suggests that this happened during a bout of illness: the Virgin Mary reportedly showed him the habit of the Dominicans in a dream. The last scene is about a dinner hosted by the Dominicans. Angels are bringing bread and figs (Dominicus was said to have been a vegetarian). Between the six scenes we spot six statuettes, representing Christ, the Madonna and Child and – presumably – the Four Doctors of the Church.

Rear panel of the Arca di San Domenico.

Rear of the Arca di San Domenico with relic holder.

The upper part of the tomb, i.e. the ‘lid’ or cimatium, is largely the work of the sculptor Niccolò da Bari (ca. 1435-1494), who is also known as Niccolò dell’Arca (the Arca being this specific tomb). Niccolò worked on the monument between 1469 and 1473. Then, in 1494, a very young and talented sculptor came to Bologna. His name was Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) and he was a mere 19 years old. Michelangelo sculpted the statue of the angel on the right that doubles as a candle holder. He was furthermore responsible for the statues of Saints Proculus and Petronius. The former was a Roman soldier who was martyred in Bologna during the Diocletianic persecutions of Christians, the latter served as bishop of the city between ca. 431 and 450 and is considered Bologna’s patron saint.

Below the panels sculpted by Nicola Pisano and his assistants we see more scenes from the life of Dominicus. These were made by Alfonso Lombardi (ca. 1497-1537) and date from 1532. Much later Jean-Baptiste Boudard (1710-1768) sculpted the relief near the bottom of the monument that features the death of Dominicus. It was Boudard’s last work: shortly after completing the work in 1768 he passed away. The back of the monument has a niche into which a relic holder made in 1383 by Jacopo Roseto da Bologna has been placed. It contains the head of the saint.

Other things to see

Cappella del Rosario.

Opposite the Cappella di San Domenico is the equally gigantic Cappella del Rosario. The Rosario is the rosary, the set of prayer beads that was supposedly introduced by Dominicus. This tradition is not supported by any evidence, but that hardly matters in the field of religion. What does matter, is what people choose to believe. The chapel dates from the fifteenth century and was initially a family chapel, built by the architects Francesco Abaco from Bologna and Giovanni di Pietro for the Guidotti family.

In the sixteenth century the chapel was acquired by a fraternity that venerated the Holy Rosary. This led to a remodelling of the chapel. The altar dates from 1589 and was made by Floriano Ambrosini, already mentioned above. The fifteen paintings featuring the mysteries of the rosary were made by a plethora of local masters. Between 1655 and 1657 Angelo Michele Colonna (1604-1687) and Agostino Mitelli (1609-1660) painted the frescoes on the vault and in the conch of the apse. The two cantorie (choir stalls) are works by the aforementioned Carlo Francesco Dotti and date from 1736. Two more interesting facts about the chapel: the child prodigy Mozart once played on the organ in the Cappella del Rosario and the painters Guido Reni and Elisabetta Sirani were buried here. Sirani (1638-1665), who died young, was one of the very few female painters of the seventeenth century. One of her predecessors was Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614), also a woman, who contributed to the paintings of the mysteries of the rosary.

The nave and choir of the church have long been separated from each other by a dossal. A crucifix by Giunta Pisano made in about 1250 had been set up on this dossal. The crucifix may have been painted to celebrate the consecration of the church by Pope Innocentius IV. Most dossals were removed from Catholic churches following the decrees of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which had been convened to find an answer to the challenges posed by the Reformation. The church of San Domenico also saw the removal of the screen and the precious crucifix by Pisano can now be found in the left transept. There we may also admire the funerary monument for Taddeo Pepoli, the lawyer who was lord of Bologna between 1337 and his death in 1347. The monument we see is a reconstruction from the sixteenth century. However, the sculpted panels featuring scenes from Pepoli’s life are original works from the fourteenth century. Not far from the tomb there is a piece of fresco, also from the fourteenth century. It features Saint Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225-1274), who was himself a Dominican, and presumably Saint Anthony the Abbot.

Crucifix by Giunta Pisano / funerary monument for Taddeo Pepoli.

Apparently visitors have to pay to visit the choir. We were in Bologna in the summer of 2020, when Italy was still in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic. The gates of the choir were closed, so it was clear that this part of the church was off-limits that day. However, peeping through the bars of the gates we could see the works of art very well. The altarpiece is an Adoration of the Magi by Bartolomeo Cesi (1556-1629) and the beautiful wooden choir stalls were made by Damiano da Bergamo (ca. 1480/90-1549), himself a Dominican friar. Upon leaving the church we stumbled upon a painting of Saint Michael the Archangel by Giacomo Raibolini, also known as Giacomo Francia (1484-1557). It is a work by a local painter that is not mentioned in any of the sources I consulted for this post. And that, for me, is a reason to include a picture of the painting below.

Fresco featuring Thomas Aquinas / paiting by Giacomo Francia.

Sources: website of the church, Italian Wikipedia, Bologna Welcome, Bologna Guide and an article about the Arca di San Domenico.

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